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The rise, fall and rise of seaweed

Seaweed farmers harvest up to 100 kilos of seaweed each day (© FAO/S. Venturi)
Seaweed farmers harvest up to 100 kilos of seaweed each day
© FAO/S. Venturi

Seaweed farming is arduous work. In Zanzibar - the Indian Ocean island that is the 'zan' in Tanzania - over 15,000 people earn a modest income from seaweed cultivation, producing around 5,000 tonnes (dry weight) per year. The substance extracted from their crop - known as agar or carrageenan - is a versatile emulsifier and has multiple uses in industry. Medical capsules, furniture varnish, toothpaste and a multitude of other products derive their uniquely useful properties from seaweed. Yet the income earned by growers is variable and meagre, as little as US$0.10 per dried kilo, with little scope to bargain for more. However, in the last year, a new project is raising hope and income for Zanzibar's seaweed farmers.

The initiative has taken over seven years to come to fruition, aided by the enthusiasm of Dr Flower Msuyu, chief laboratory scientist at the University of Dar-Es-Salaam's Institute of Marine Sciences. The challenge was to make seaweed farming less gruelling and more profitable. Typically, seaweed farmers - 90 per cent of whom in Zanzibar are women - spend up to ten hours each day crouching in shallow water, tying pieces of seaweed to ropes that are hung across the low tide 'fields'. When the tide comes in, work stops, but when the tide retreats the women are back out there, even during the hottest hours of the day. They harvest up to 100 kilos of seaweed each day, which shrinks in size and weight on drying; their meagre income is constrained by a low price on world markets as well as by Zanzibar's two dominant seaweed buyers and the middlemen who supply them.

Adding value and bargaining power

Seaweed farming is arduous work (© Thembi Mutch)
Seaweed farming is arduous work
© Thembi Mutch

Increasing the price has proved difficult, as Fredrik Alfredsson, manager of the seaweed project in Paje, on the island's popular east coast, explains: "The farmers have no collective bargaining power, they are small scale operators and dispersed. Moreover, Zanzibar's contribution to world markets is not big enough to flex any muscle." Under the project however, clusters have been created where everyone working in seaweed links together. Thus farmers meet buyers, processors and packers, and seaweed can be transported to town using hired cars or public transport. As a result, the farmers are no longer dependant on one buyer: they have their own distribution networks and more power in the marketplace. The project has also led to the building of a processing factory, allowing the seaweed farmers to add value to their crop.

Eating seaweed also adds value: at a local beach restaurant, a young chef proudly presents the meal of seaweed salad, garnished with peppers, tomato, fresh sardines and chips. Seaweed tastes like crisp lettuce, slightly sweeter, and is one of the highest sources of Vitamin K and iron. Seated at the table in the sun, Dr Msuyu is clearly delighted. "Several years ago I was training young people in the restaurant and catering college to use seaweed in dishes," she says. "It's worked!" Under her management, two new varieties were introduced, Eucheuma striatum and Laurencia papillosa, which are pink, beige or dark green depending on the stage of their growth, and small and feathery looking.

The seaweed farmers have also developed a range of new products, including seaweed cake, soap and jam and, through a company established under the project, they stand to benefit financially. The company has been formed by a complicated knit of graduate students at the prestigious Chalmers School of Entrepreneurship in Denmark, the Institute of Marine Sciences, and various European stakeholders. According to the relentlessly optimistic Dr Msuyu, it is a fine example of corporate social responsibility in action.

Income to the deserving

Increasing the price farmers are paid for seaweed has proved difficult (© Thembi Mutch)
Increasing the price farmers are paid for seaweed has proved difficult
© Thembi Mutch

In the articles of the seaweed company, the women are the only stakeholders who can take out profit. "We want the seaweed centre here in Paje to expand, but all the dividends and all the profits will go back to the women," says Kidawa, one of those women, who has the looks of a supermodel despite her gruelling routine. She smiles when asked what she wants. "Obviously, I want our soap in all the shops, I want a greater understanding of supply chains and markets, and I want a sense of how other women, women like me, live in other parts of Tanzania, and I want to maybe share knowledge and business ideas." And Dr Msuyu also has ambitions for growth. "If we create three seaweed cluster initiative centres we can get new markets and greater profits. It's a very good way to make business," she concludes.

Written by: Thembi Mutch

Date published: June 2011


Have your say

Very interesting project. Congratulations Dr Flower. (posted by: Moostoopha JEETOO)

This work is very important and we beleive that there are ma... (posted by: Amor Chermiti)


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